Cervical cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. It can often be found early, and sometimes even prevented, by having regular screening tests. If discovered early, it’s one of the most successfully treated cancers.
What are the known causes?
Cancers can be caused by DNA mutations (gene defects).
Human papillomaviruses (HPV) have two proteins known as E6 and E7 which turn off some tumor suppressor genes. This may allow the cells lining the cervix to grow too much and to develop changes in additional genes, which in some cases can lead to cancer.
But HPV is not the only cause of cervical cancer. Most women with HPV don’t get cervical cancer, and other risk factors, like smoking and HIV infection, influence which women exposed to HPV are more likely to develop cervical cancer.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease.
Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Other types of HPV are called high-risk types because they are strongly linked to cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, and vagina in women, penile cancer in men, and cancers of the anus, mouth, and throat in both men and women.
- Several factors related to your sexual history can increase the risk of cervical cancer. The risk is most likely affected by increasing the chances of exposure to HPV.
- Women who smoke are about twice as likely as those who don’t smoke to get cervical cancer.
- Chlamydia infection
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills). Research suggests that the risk of cervical cancer goes up the longer a woman takes OCs, but the risk goes back down again after the OCs are stopped and returns to normal many years after stopping.
- A family history of cervical cancer
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Women with early cervical cancers and pre-cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms often do not begin until the cancer becomes larger and grows into nearby tissue. When this happens, the most common symptoms are:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, or having (menstrual) periods that are longer or heavier than usual. Bleeding after douching may also occur.
- An unusual discharge from the vagina − the discharge may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex
- Pain in the pelvic region
Signs and symptoms seen with more advanced disease can include:
- Swelling of the legs
- Problems urinating or having a bowel movement
- Blood in the urine
These signs and symptoms can also be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, see a health care professional right away.
Is it prevention possible?
The two most important things you can do to prevent cervical cancer are to get the HPV vaccine if you are eligible, and to be tested regularly according to American Cancer Society (ACS) guidelines.
- HPV Vaccine
The ACS recommends HPV vaccination of children between the ages of 9 and 12.
Children and young adults age 13 through 26 who have not been vaccinated, or who haven’t gotten all their doses, should get the vaccine as soon as possible. Vaccination of young adults will not prevent as many cancers as vaccination of children and teens.
The ACS does not recommend HPV vaccination for persons older than 26 years.
- Get screened regularly
The Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test are specific tests used during screening for cervical cancer. These tests are done the same way. A health professional uses a special tool to gently scrape or brush the cervix to remove cells for testing. If a pre-cancer is found it can be treated, keeping it from turning into a cervical cancer.
The HPV test looks for infection by high-risk types of HPV that are more likely to cause pre-cancers and cancers of the cervix. There are certain HPV tests approved to be a primary HPV test and others approved as part of a co-test. The type you get most often depends on which test is available in your area.
The Pap test or smear is a procedure used to collect cells from the cervix so that they can be looked at closely in the lab to find cancer and pre-cancer. It’s important to know that most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap tests. A Pap test can be done during a pelvic exam, but not all pelvic exams include a Pap test.